Pop music can be seen, in terms of its content and appeal, as essentially an adolescent medium, but folk music, though surely informed by pop hi-jinks, often speaks with a more mature voice. It’s our fathers and our uncles whom we imagine lounging by the fire as they pick out a Jon Fahey or Leadbelly tune on the old Martin. A broad generalization, sure, but there is a resignation and lucidity (all angst-ridden Connor Obersts aside) to those lonely strummers that gives them a weight that a Jet or even a Modest Mouse can’t touch.
With his third full-length in three years, Devendra Banhart has come wide-eyed to tug on folk music’s collective pant leg and demand the attention he undeniably deserves. Never has a singer-songwriter sounded so endearingly infantile, so awed by the immensity of experience as has Banhart — an artist whose music makes lines like "My smells grew some new smells and I just couldn’t smell them all" sound commonplace. His 2002 debut, Oh Me Oh My…, a tape-hissing song cycle filled with agile finger-picking and an unmistakable vibrato, had the spark of true talent, and this year’s Rejoicing in the Hands focused Banhart’s talent, turning his whimsy into coherent songs.
Though the tracks on Nino Rojo were culled from the same marathon sessions that produced Rejoicing in the Hands, it is by no means a collection of outtakes. The same starry-eyed lyrical impressionism, tasteful arrangements, and open-air intimacy envelopes these tunes. The slight differences lie in tone, not song structure or production quality. Banhart reaffirms his role as folk’s eccentric pre-schooler with Nino Rojo, which is lighter and more festive than his last collection. "We All Know" and the lilting closer, "Electric Heart," are delicious little celebrations that’ll have you chasing flowers and roasting marshmallows. And "Little Yellow Spider" sites early Cat Stevens, with its playful descriptions of a "sexy pig" and a psychedelic squid.
On "Water May Walk" and others, birds (and possibly a few crickets) can clearly be heard chirping behind Banhart’s breathy vocals. The choice to record in the cozy environs of a southern mansion on the Alabama/Georgia border, often with the windows wide open, gives his music the familiarity and sense of fleeting inconsequence it deserves. The preciousness of Banhart’s tales of moons, crab cakes, and Jamaica can be grating, but the off-the-cuff production tempers the gypsy minstrel’s cuteness and makes it palatable.
For Banhart’s devotees, Nino Rojo will be nothing new, but it is final proof of a true original in the singer-songwriter community — one whose youthful persona is as beguiling as it is ephemeral.